The Celtics have won 10 straight, and also have won 26 straight at home, which includes both Boston Garden (23) and the Hartford Civic Center (3). A victory today would tie a one-season home-court record for conescutive victories established by the Minneapolis Lakers in 1949-50, when the foul lane was 6 feet wide, George Mikan was the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar of basketball, the referees were afraid of half the owners and all the road crowds, Uncle Miltie was the new Mr. Television and the schedule called for occasional stops at such exotic ports of call as Waterloo, Iowa, and Sheboygan, Wis.
In order for New Jersey (36-39, currently No. 6 in the Eastern Conference play-off pecking order, a half-game ahead of Washington) to do what no one has done here since Portland stunned the Celtics back on Dec. 6 -- Boston's lone home loss in 36 games -- the Nets will have to overcome the league's stingiest defense. While the obvious public focus has been on the heroics of Larry Bird, the continued brilliance of Dennis Johnson and the storybook play of Bill Walton, the Celtics have quietly become a monster on defense, and this, of course, pleases the coach greatly. After all, that No. 25 isn't hanging from the ceiling because he was the Max Zaslofsky or Iceman of his generation.
"We have really emphasized defense this year," says K.C. Jones, "even more than in other years. And I'd say that since the Sacramento game (Feb. 11), we have played excellent defense. You'll recall that we were way down in that game and we got back with great defense to where Larry was on the line with a chance to tie the game. We should have won that game, and from then on, in LA, Portland, Seattle and the rest of that road trip, we played strong defense. Defense was our carrier on that trip."
Defense has always been the hallmark of truly great teams, and the 1985-86 Celtics are starting to be thought of as just that."I thought our defense was incredibly tough when I first came here," says Walton. "With great athletes like Danny Ainge, Dennis Johnson and Larry Bird out front, and with men like Robert Parish and Kevin McHale back there to swat away shots, we certainly have one of the better team defenses in the league." Walton failed to mention another big factor in Boston's defensive success, since his own contributions, as everyone knows, rival, or exceed, those of any center in the league.
The numbers bear out these words of praise. The latest NBA statistics reveal that the Celtics are tied with Milwaukee for first place in the only team defensive stat that really means anything. Both the Celtics and Bucks have restricted opponents to .463 shooting from the floor.
But a closer look at the Celtics' defensive performance over the past six weeks reveals a growing defensive expertise heading into the play-offs. In the 20 games following the West Coast trip (Feb. 23 through Friday night), the Celtics have limited opponents to .454 shooting from the floor. Only four opponents have been able to shoot 50 percent or better from the floor in those games. The Celtics, meanwhile, have shot better than 50 percent 16 times.
Here's another interesting stat. A clear dividing line between a respectable offensive game and an inadequate one is 40 team field goals made. In 73 games this season, Boston opponents have failed to reach 40 field goals 23 times. The Celtics have been under that number 10 times. However, in the 20 games under discussion here, the opponents have failed to reach 40 field goals six times. The Celtics have had 40 or more field goals in every one of those games.
Keep in mind also that the total defensive stats do not reveal the effect of garbage time, when points come cheap for both teams. The Celtics have eliminated their 13 post-Coast home opponents by an average of 13 points a game. Most recent Celtics games have been decided sometime between the anthem belting of Guy Rotondo and the first required timeout. It would be interesting to know what the rival shooting percentages have been against Boston with the fourth period thrown out.
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